What is it that makes certain performers magnetic?

This past weekend I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet perform at the Joyce here in New York City. I was taken aback by the bevy of beautiful bodies onstage. Almost every female dancer had exquisitely long limbs, ideal ballet proportions, feet to die for and even model-worthy facial features. They were Ballerina Barbie come to life—if Ballerina Barbie had been designed by George Balanchine.

And then there was soloist Rachel Foster. She was a few inches shorter than the other dancers in both of the pieces I saw her in (Twyla Tharp's Opus 111 and Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements). And while she's thin, instead of a delicate, lithe silhouette, she sports an athletic, muscle-y build. She does not have what most pre-professional ballet students think of as "the perfect ballet body."

But she was breathtaking. Every time she moved, it felt like she was literally speaking to the audience. You could almost hear a raspy voice as she powered through Tharp's jaunty choreography. Even when her arms sometimes landed in awkward positions, they looked completely real. They were in that less-than-elegant place because her body was doing something more important than hitting positions: it was really dancing. And it was fantastic.

She's got chutzpah, and it vibrates out into the audience. Every time Rachel left the stage I couldn't wait until she came back on, and when she did, I barely saw anyone else up there because I was so entranced by her movement.

Although sky-high developpés and triple pirouettes are nice, when you get onstage, the audience never notices 180-degree turnout. In fact, if you're really moving, audiences can never even tell if you have 180-degree turnout or not. What they do notice, however, is spirit. And even beautiful bodies can't distract them from the girl with the spark.

Ballet Stars

For many a bunhead, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is not just a holiday tradition, but a rite of passage. The variation, with its tinkling celesta, bourrées and petit battus, is one that all ballet dancers are familiar with, and getting the opportunity to perform it often represents moving into new realms in your training or career. Such was the case for Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova. In this 1957 clip, the 18-year-old aspirant performed the Sugar Plum variation at a ballet competition, where she represented the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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For any young dancer performing in The Nutcracker, Marie (aka Clara, depending on the production) is a dream role. But Charlotte Nebres, who will be playing Marie in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker this year isn't just bringing her own dream to life—she's also making history.

Charlotte is the first black dancer to ever perform the role of Marie in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, which dates all the way back to 1954. Charlotte was, of course, hugely excited to perform the role of Marie, but, according to the New York Times, when her mother told her that she was the first black dancer cast in the role, she said "Wow. That seems a little late."

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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